By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
The first day of April
brings two prominent prep races on the Road to the Kentucky Derby: the $1.25
million Arkansas Derby (G1) at Oaklawn Park and the $1 million Florida Derby
(G1) at Gulfstream Park.
Both races have drawn large
fields. Let's check out the key contenders and plan some picks:
Arkansas Derby (G1)
The Arkansas Derby has drawn
a strong field. Three Road to the Kentucky Derby prep race winners have entered
the 1 1/8-mile contest: Risen Star S. (G2) hero #6 Angel of Empire (9-2), Holy Bull S. (G3) winner #7 Rocket Can (4-1), and Sham S. (G3)
champ #8 Reincarnate (5-2). Another
entrant, #10 Red Route One (3-1),
has cracked the trifecta in a trio of Road to the Kentucky Derby qualifiers.
Among those four, I prefer
the chances of Reincarnate. He was gritty as could be in the Sham, leading
virtually all the way to beat next-out Robert B. Lewis S. (G3) winner Newgate
by a neck with American Pharoah S. (G1) runner-up and Breeders' Cup Juvenile
(G1) third-place finisher National Treasure rounding out the trifecta.
You can argue Reincarnate should
have won the Rebel S. (G2) at Oaklawn last month, but the normally speedy colt
received a nightmare trip. After breaking just a step slowly, Reincarnate got
shut off between rivals and shuffled back to ninth place, leaving him nearly a
dozen lengths off the lead over an unfamiliar sloppy track. Reincarnate could
have thrown in the towel right then, but he was actually rallying nicely
between rivals until he got shut off again in the homestretch. Forced to steady
and wait for room, Reincarnate somehow launched another rally once he got in
the clear, closing three lengths in the final furlong to finish third by 2 1/2
On Saturday, I hope to see
Reincarnate break cleanly, secure a forward position, and battle for victory
down the homestretch. But is he my top choice? Actually, no. I'm getting
creative with the up-and-comer #4 Two
Eagles River (10-1) at four times the price.
Two Eagles River showed
promise in his first four starts, beating or running well against Road to the
Kentucky Derby participants like Smarty Jones S. winner Victory Formation,
Jerome S. hero Lugan Knight, and Champagne S. (G1) runner-up Verifying.
But Two Eagles River
elevated his game to a new level in a $100,000 allowance optional claimer
racing one mile at Oaklawn last month. After dashing to the lead through respectable
fractions of :23.36, :47.94, and 1:12.68, Two Eagles River accelerated strongly
(running his final two furlongs in :12.26 and :12.16) to draw off and beat
Disarm by four lengths. Disarm, it should be noted, came back to finish second
in the Louisiana Derby (G2).
This victory may have marked
a turning point for Two Eagles River. It was his first time setting the pace,
and the finishing power he displayed was impressive. The son of Preakness S.
(G1) winner Cloud Computing has turned in a few sharp workouts since then
(including a bullet five furlongs in :59 at Oaklawn) and may be capable of
stepping forward again in the Arkansas Derby. Taking all these factors
together, Two Eagles River is an enticing win choice, especially if his 10-1
morning line odds hold up.
Florida Derby (G1)
The big storyline heading
into the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby is the fact reigning champion two-year-old
male #11 Forte (4-5) has drawn an
unfavorable outside post with a short run to the first turn.
But to be honest, the wide
post doesn't bother me. Forte is by far the most accomplished horse in the
field, boasting consecutive victories in the Hopeful S. (G1), Breeders'
Futurity (G1), Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1), and Fountain of Youth S. (G2). He's
repeatedly shown the ability to unleash and sustain sharp bursts of
acceleration, and his turn-of-foot in the Fountain of Youth was particularly
impressive, carrying him to a 4 1/2-length victory in the 1 1/16-mile contest.
Plus, elite horses are
capable of winning the Florida Derby from outside posts. Barbaro prevailed from
post 10 in 2006, and Big Brown won from post 12 in 2008. Both went on to claim
victory in the Kentucky Derby.
Forte has already proven he's
an elite racehorse, and he isn't facing the toughest field on paper in the
Florida Derby. Furthermore, his most accomplished rival—Remsen (G2) winner #12 Dubyuhnell (6-1)—has drawn an even
In a large field containing
many longshots, I would rather see Forte race cleanly on the outside than risk
getting buried in traffic along the inside. I'm optimistic he'll shrug off any
ground loss on Saturday and give trainer Todd Pletcher a record-extending
seventh victory in the Florida Derby.
For second place, I'll
support #4 Mage (10-1), who wired
his debut sprinting seven furlongs at Gulfstream before finishing fourth with a
trouble start and a wide trip in the Fountain of Youth. Just like with
Reincarnate, I hope to see Mage get off to a better start and grab a forward
position in the Florida Derby, setting the stage for a rebound.
Now it's your turn! Who do
you like in the Arkansas Derby and Florida Derby?
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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, videographer, voice actor, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite.